The Tuscan Allure
From Renaissance artists to Romantic poets, Tuscany has a long history of attracting people to rejoice in its splendour. Sally Thomson fulfilled a lifelong wish to visit, soaking up the food, culture and sun along the way…
We all think we know Italian culture – but we can so easily be lead into stereotypes and pastiches, mostly when we think about cuisine. Food and the act of eating food is so much more than that in Italy – food is revered and understood, it is enjoyed whilst stories are shared around the table, a spirit of mutual generosity pervades. This is what we would come to understand on a recent trip to explore the glorious, ancient hills of Tuscany – where we learnt the true meaning of la dolce vita on our own foodie pilgrimage.
Our journey of culinary and cultural discovery began at the glorious Vitigliano, a stunning guest house hidden like a prize jewel within rolling hills. We took a while to find it – it is after all a part of the Hideaway Hotels group, and in this respect it certainly didn’t disappoint. By the time we did actually reach our destination – somewhat late – our hosts were there to welcome us and immediately gave us a glass of wine whilst introducing us to our fellow diners. Owners Marion, husband Kiyan and rest of the guests had kindly waited for our arrival so that dinner could begin.
Surrounded by bucolic fields, we were hoping that the menu would reflect this wonderful local produce – it certainly delivered. The food was delicious – comprising of 4 courses – each one accompanied by a hand-selected wine. The chef, who is Sri Lankan, is superb and his dishes are Italian and on occasion served with a wonderful Asian twist. The mantra is as much locally grown organic produce as possible. You can’t get much better than that.
We sat outside watching the sun setting whilst enjoying the company of people we had not met before and the hours went by until it was past midnight and we hadn’t even taken our suitcases out of the car. We truly enjoyed the company of our fellow guests. Great food always precedes a wonderful slumber, and our bedchambers were nothing short of majestic. Decked out with all the mod-cons you could ever wish for, lofty two-storey ceilings, a palatial amount of space and furthermore – a well-stocked wine fridge in the bathroom. I had a feeling this place might be a hard one to leave…
Come morning after a wonderfully deep sleep we were awoken by the sounds of bird song and cicadas as the sun started to warm us up for the day. As we had arrived late we had not seen the full extent of the glorious setting we were in. We were surrounded by vineyards, pine trees and olive groves, the scents of these rising with the warm breeze that rippled through the hotel’s own grounds. Breakfast beckoned – another leisurely event. For me, holidays should always feature a couple of those deadly sins, sloth and gluttony being particularly pertinent as we lazed by the pool. With glorious crystalline water and the most spectacular views, there are few places lovelier to soak up the sunshine with a book.
I did manage to tear myself away to enjoy a massage in the hotel’s lovely spa. I have to say that over the years I have enjoyed many treatments all over the world, but as I said to my husband, this one in particular was without a doubt the best I had ever had.
Lunch again was a very leisurely affair and all we could manage for the afternoon was a spot more swimming, a touch of reading and gazing out at the glorious landscape. We felt that we were in heaven. All the while we were kept hydrated with the lovely staff delivering ice cold glasses of wine (and water!). Kiyan has the most incredible wine vault in which he keeps local wines alongside a limited edition of specialist grape blends which were developed for Marion and grown by the neighbour Tommasi Cavalli (yes, the son of famous designer).
We could not help but be enchanted with the location. It sits on a hill top overlooking what must be the most unspoilt view in the whole of Chianti. To tell you a little more about Vitigliano – it was a village many years ago and dates back to Roman times. It was first mentioned in 1085 and is believed to have been a look out tower which subsequently became a hamlet.
Marion had a dream to live in this part of the world and it took her many years to find the right location. When she discovered Vitigliano, despite it being totally dilapidated, she was captivated by it. Once she decided to proceed with the purchase it took her 4 years to turn it into the haven it is today. Marion worked tirelessly with teams of local builders to give it the heart and feel that she believed in.
We could have stayed on for a month, but more exploration beckoned. One thing about driving around Tuscany is that you have to be prepared for many hairpin bends, no more so than the road that leads to Borgo di Vagli, our home for the next two nights. We drove along a very rough track wondering where we would end up. And there it was, a hamlet which sat on a steep hill surrounded by woods and olive groves. The rustic stone walls constructed from sun bleached sandstone, the roofs forming patchworks with chunky slates. It was easy to see that it had been lovingly restored – having fallen into serious disrepair, the inspirational Fulvio Di Rosa had the vision and expertise as an architect to restore it to its former glory. It is so easy for architects to abandon historic qualities in favour of fashion, but here, Di Rosa has been entirely sympathetic to the original fabric of these buildings, creating an atmosphere that could easily transport you into the fifteenth century.
In all there are 31 stone houses, packed with original features and bedecked with characterful interiors. Some rooms even had coal fireplaces, perfect for a cosy winter stay. This though is still a place of retreat and for all the historic charms, the houses offer up-to- date amenities such as Wi-Fi and satellite TV.
We had the pleasure of dining with Fulvio one evening and he explained the ethos of Borgo di Vagli. The houses as a collective are a kind of timeshare (but yours for perpetuity), where owners can buy a share of the property and visit whenever is convenient. It is known as fractional ownership and allows predetermined buyers a set number of weeks a year. For many, the attraction is that they can own a little slice of Tuscan heaven, but without having to worry about the cost of maintenance and the upkeep of their holiday home. This draws a veritable melting pot of people from all over the globe and all walks of life.
One particular interesting effect of this type of ownership is that people return year after year and become friends – that was very evident when we all sat together under the stars getting to know one another. A typical Italian setting with everyone around the table chatting and enjoying each other’s company, the scene unfolded as a charming tableau and one that I can truly see the appeal of. We shared large plates of food cooked by Dina, who until many years ago used to live in one of the old houses – as we shared food, she shared stories of her time there.
With a sense of understated beauty, it’s impossible to not feel right at home here! This is a home, not a resort, and allows people to settle into their preferred pace of life.
After fond farewells and promises of return, we were then off to our next stop, again weaving our way through the beautiful landscape, our destination: the stunning Borgo Pignano, the Tuscan fantasy come true. It is a magnificent 18th Century villa complete with a grand stone staircase, original frescoes, antique furniture and cool terracotta floors. Both inside and out this beautiful hotel is filled with art and sculptures, a place where a love of the arts meets great food and wonderful hospitality.
We arrived in time to have lunch and sat in the shade, under a vine-covered pergola enjoying delicious produce from the 750-acre estate. Fresh tomatoes still warm from the vine, served with creamy burata – simplicity at its best.
As the mercury rose, we decided to cool off and headed down to the pool. Carved from an ancient limestone quarry with the most breathtaking views, you can lounge under parasols overlooking the valley. A easy air of relaxation flows through this hotel – each guest seemed buoyed up by that sense of wellbeing – rejuvenation really permeates everything they offer. Offering spa treatments alongside horse-riding and cycling, this is a hotel that ensures guests get the most out of their stay.
Even for me, a person perennially on edge, getting into the swing of things was easy and in just two nights I found a sense of inner calm. That may have had something to do with cocktail hour – at 6.30 each evening we assembled on the terrace to soak up those other-worldly views of rolling hills and ancient vineyards. We dined al fresco, enjoying a tasting menu created from the freshest local produce. The wonderful by-product of the isolation of many of these properties is that the produce so often must come from a small, local radius. It serves to really connect you with the seasons and a deep appreciation for those simple pleasures – a perfectly ripe peach, rich and flavoursome cheeses and pungent herbs. Each kitchen offered something different, but the quality and provenance of the ingredients served to unite them all.
If you have your fill of relaxation, Borgo Pignano is ideally located to explore the area. It is only 15 minutes away from the charming medieval town of Volterra, 25 minutes away from San Gimignano (famous for it’s medieval towers), one hour from Pisa, 45 minutes from Siena, one and a half hours from Florence and 45 minutes from the coast.
It was such a shame that we only had 2 nights here. There were so many places to explore and coming back here in the evening for fine dining would be the perfect end to any day.
Having waited so many years to visit this wonderful area, I will not wait so long again. I left feeling I had gained a new understanding of the Italian way. Each of our stays was so different, but they all shared a wonderful sense of community and kinship which can be forgotten in the modern age. Whenever I need a recharge, back to Tuscany I will go.
Where we Stayed
Vitigliano Tuscan Relais & Spa
Via Case Sparse (Panzano), 64, 50022 Greve in Chianti FI, Italy
Tel: +39 333 774 1692
Borgo di Vagli
Vagli, 52040 Cortona AR, Italy
Tel: +39 0575 61961
Pignano, 6, 56048 Volterra PI, Italy
Tel: +39 0588 35120
We flew with Easyjet to Pisa and rented a car – essential to navigate from one property to another.